The Local Buzz

BY Richard Leder

Inside this bright and happy summer issue the Take Ten lists 10 very cool things you can do with honey. When you read it (if you haven’t already) you’ll discover that in addition to sweetening your tea and toast honey is a highly regarded panacea for cuts coughs local allergy relief and much more of what ails us. But not just any honey will do. Healers of all stripes recommend local honey especially to cure our ills. So the question is: Is there anyone on the local scene who’s keeping bees and making honey from the plants and flowers that grow right here in our backyard? And the answer is: Oh my yes. Mr. Tony’s got us covered.

Tony Hardin has been a farm manager for Lewis Nursery & Farms for a long long while. A soft-spoken bright-eyed gentleman in a wide-brimmed hat known respectfully and affectionately to one and all as Mr. Tony he is a master farmer certainly but he is also by way of necessity interest and hobby a master beekeeper.

“I started messing with bees when I was a boy probably 12 15 years old. Friend of mine gave me a couple hives he was a beekeeper and I messed with them for several years until I was 18 or so and then I didn’t have time for bees no more. I had to go see the girls for a while ” Mr. Tony says with a youthful sparkle in his eyes. He’s a grandfather now sharp as a tack and as hard at work as ever.

In 1985 varroa and tracheal mites (parasitic enemies of honeybees) wiped out all the wild bees in America and Lewis Nursery & Farms crops suffered mightily. Cucumbers blueberries and many other plants simply cannot survive without pollination by the industrious honeybee. Out of necessity for Lewis Nursery & Farms and because he always liked and had an interest in bees Mr. Tony bought a few hives and started building a little hobby from the ground up in a bee yard in Rocky Point home of Lewis Strawberry Nursery.

Over the course of four to five years Mr. Tony grew his hobby to more or less 160 hives. Is that a lot of bees? Each hive holds between 60 000 and 90 000 bees. That’s 12 million bees. Yes that’s a lot of bees.

Mr. Tony’s bees live in hives made of boxes called supers which are 16½ inches wide and 11½ inches deep. Inside each super are 10 frames made with a foundation wax for the bees to build on. A full super of honey weighs 125 pounds and it’s all beeswax hanging off the thin frame of foundation wax an amazing feat of engineering humans can’t duplicate.

When the supers are full Mr. Tony leaves two boxes for each colony or hive — enough to take the whole hive through the winter — and takes the rest anywhere from one to four supers. “From about the knees down belongs to them and from the knees up belongs to me ” Mr. Tony says laughing.

The hives sit on four five or six trailers (depending on the year) custom-adapted by Mr. Tony to hold 28 hives per trailer each hive situated 12 inches apart. He trucks the trailers into a field that’s blooming and parks them there until the bees have pollinated whatever is in that field according to the time of year.

“I pollinate blueberries in early March when blueberries are blooming then I go to the cucumbers ” Mr. Tony says. When his bees are done pollinating the strawberries their last job of the season Mr. Tony takes them out to the wild where they pollinate all kinds of plants and flowers. “That’s why I call my honey ‘wildflower honey ’” Mr. Tony says.

About the last of June the first of July the honey flow is over with. Mr. Tony puts on his bee suit grabs his smoker to relax the bees and pulls his supers off the top. He puts the honey-rich boxes in his truck and takes them back to his bee room which he makes sure is a good long distance from the hives so the bees won’t follow after him for their honey.

“A bee will fly two miles away from the hive ” Mr. Tony says. “I have moved hives as much as a mile from one pollination field to another then gone back to where they were the very next day and I’ve got a lot of bees back there.”

Once he’s got the supers in the bee room — he takes 50 – 75 at a time — Mr. Tony working frame by frame takes a hot knife cuts the wax off the frames and puts it in an extractor. He separates the honey from the wax strains the honey mixes it all together in a vat fills his jars from a tap and sells them at Lewis Farms. In case you’re wondering I can tell you firsthand it’s the most delicate and wonderful honey you have ever tasted and it is pure 100-percent local honey.

Last year Mr. Tony tapped somewhere around 200 gallons of wildflower honey but there’s always a big variation depending upon how the spring goes. For instance this past spring the freeze early on killed a lot of the flowers. “It made the bees work real hard for very little production ” Mr. Tony says. “That early freeze killed the blooms on the hollies. Didn’t hurt the hollies just killed the blooms. That put the bees out of a job. They had to look elsewhere.”

But if the bees have been working overtime so has Mr. Tony. “The real work is in early spring when you’re catching swarms ” Mr. Tony says. When the hives split they call it swarming. What happens is truly a wonder of nature. The old queen lays an egg for the new queen. Three or four days before the new queen hatches the old queen splits the colony in two perfectly in half and leaves the hive with her half to find another hive. The young queen will hatch out start laying her eggs and build the original colony back up.

Most hives will split in the spring Mr. Tony says. “If they get real strong and they’re good bees they’ll split. I caught probably 40 hives or 40 splits this year. They’ll pitch on a bush. I set a box down and shake them off into the box. When the queen goes in the rest go in after her and they’re stable.”

But if the old queen takes 45 000 or so bees with her how is either queen able to build her colony back up to full strength in time to make honey? It’s a good question but not even the whole question because a worker bee (and all the worker bees are female though only the queen lays eggs) only lives for six weeks. Think about it. With that kind of abbreviated lifespan thousands and thousands of bees need to be replaced almost daily certainly weekly and when the colony splits that’s a lot of bees to replace. The queen though is up to the task. “A good queen can lay up to 15 000 eggs per day every day ” Mr. Tony says. “I’m not saying she does but she can.”

With all those eggs you might suspect there would have to be an abundance of male bees in the hive but you’d be wrong. “If there’s too many drones [males] they don’t work. They just sit around the hive and eat ” Mr. Tony says. The workers make sure there are just enough drones to keep them busy well as bees with the queen and then after the spring when they’ve done their job you stop seeing drones around the hive. Mr. Tony knows why. “The females kill them and kick them out ” he says. “They don’t need them no more.”

Sounds aggressive but Mr. Tony says you can’t judge one bee by another. “Every box of bees has a different nature just like people and over the years you learn which ones are smooth and easy and which ones are mad and mean ” Mr. Tony says. It’s up to the queen; she controls the hive. If the queen is docile and easy then the bees in her colony will follow suit. If not that’s a box to be careful with. There’s no telling however which box will make the most honey. “Everybody says the more aggressive the bees the more honey they produce. That’s not true ” Mr. Tony says.

While her workers live only six weeks a queen can live two to three years though Mr. Tony recommends rotating the queen every two years. As you might have guessed Mr. Tony does the rotating himself removing the old queen and replacing her with a new queen he buys that arrives in a small box about 3 inches long and 1 inch wide.

“There’s a small hole in one end of the box plugged with sugar candy ” Mr. Tony says. “It takes the new queen three days to eat the candy and get through the hole. Amazingly by that exact amount of time — three days — the hive has accepted her as the new queen gotten used to her pheromones.” If the new queen got out before that the hive would kill her.

I asked Mr. Tony if the bees all 90 000 of them get angry at him for reaching his hand into the hive for the queen. Mr. Tony laughed and nodded his head. “The bees don’t like it but I’m bigger than they are ” he says.

That’s why he wears a beekeeper suit with gloves and netting. “Any time you go in that box they’ll attack you ” he says. “You could get stung several hundred times in a second.” Bees die within an hour after stinging just once but they give their life instantly to protect the hive.

Sadly in a very worrisome way too many bees have been giving their lives recently and scientists can’t explain why or how.

Mr. Tony reads a tremendous amount of constantly updated literature in the form of journals books and tapes to keep up-to-date with the most modern beekeeping philosophies and techniques; none of which has yet been able to address colony collapse disorder.

All over the planet honeybee colonies are vanishing at an alarming rate. Oddly the bees are literally disappearing leaving behind empty hives with no trail of dead bees to examine under a microscope. Is it parasites pesticides or cell phone radiation? No one knows. Scientists around the globe are working to solve this unsettling mystery — the food chain after all basically begins with the honeybee pollination of plants — and the hope is they will soon.

In the meantime there’s been an accounting of colony collapse disorder just north of us at the Virginia line but so far no reports in North Carolina.

So Mr. Tony will keep on beekeeping. Aside from the random black bear looking for honeybee grubs and maybe a lick or two of honey Mr. Tony gets as much pleasure from his hobby now as he ever has.

“Beekeeping is very relaxing. That’s why I like to do it ” he says. “You could have a real real bad day everything’s going wrong but you go into the bee yard that afternoon about 5 o’clock to just kind of check the bees and see how they are and you open the top of that box and there’s 90 000 bees looking at you you forget about the rest of the world. Your bad day just went out the window. You’re not worrying about a thing except those bees.”